Sunday, 23 September 2012

Goodbye, Japan: British colour woodcut in the twenties

Edward Bawden once noted, 'One can have too much of Japan,' a sentiment many young (and not so young) printmakers echoed when some key elements of  woodblock printmaking went AWOL from their work. The situation was summed up by William Giles himself when he travelled northwards to give a lecture on colour prints at Manchester in March, 1925. He was at pains to acknowledge the surge of talent that had washed across the British print scene and the way artists had simply thrown overboard what others had always seen as a life-line. Yes, it was the keyblock: 'It was a fundamental belief that a black outline was an all-important necessity, a belief based on the fact that it was met with in almost every Japanese colour print'.

His use of almost is important. It also helped considerably that every time students walked into the old Central School building in London they found themselves surrounded by examples of Japanese printmaking in the entrance-hall. They were held up to them as a model and a reference and were therefore hard to avoid. Even so, when Giles came to make his own first print, he made no mention of an outline and because all we have is a newspaper report, it's hard to say how far Giles was being ironic in the lecture. But more importantly, who were the 'many outstanding workers' who had 'appeared with their own individual expression' he was talking about? Giles makes no mention of Arthur Rigden Read, or his Venetian Shawl (above), but he could hardly have missed him. Read took up colour woodcut only in his forties and dispensed with the outline block without even trying. Notice the way he uses both shadow and the grain of the wood to avoid flatness and give a sense of three dimensions.


But Giles made special mention of Yoshijiro Urushibara. 'The finest technician in Europe' he called him. Hard, again, to say how far his words are qualified, but this fine, monochrone version of Moonlight, Bournemouth shows the way a Japanese printmaker might leave off the keyblock to show that one object lies behind another. Urushibara had certainly produced Queen of the Night (below) by the time Giles gave his lecture. No keyblock here, so why use it in the first place?


According to Giles, the keyblock allowed the publishers to make the popular ukiyo-e prints more cheaply. I don't know; but what I do know is he liked and admired the prints of Arabella Rankin (see her post). Her early woodcuts do make use of a fairly blatant outline that enhances the naive quality. Getting rid of the keyblock immediately introduces a tone of sophistication, as it does in The striped rocks, her remarkably advanced print for 1922. All she does is substitute the markings on the rocks and the line of surf to model the objects. In Queen of the night Urushibara had to resort to all kinds of surface markings and fussy outlines (which don't really show up very well here) to avoid flatness. And it ends up looking rather messy and, worse still, a bit pointless.


Another artist he came to know what the Canadian Walter Phillips. The pair had entered into a correspondence as Phillips the perfectionist had struggled to get his prints right. He was so keen to do this that he eventually left Winnepeg and brought his wife and children to Britain where he met both Urushibara and Allen Seaby.


There is plenty  of outline even in this Christmas card he sent to Seaby in 1925, soon after his return home, but by the time he made his pom-pom dahlias around 1928, it had vanished. But he was a devotee of the keyblock, being essentially a traditionalist and, in many ways, one very much like Seaby. There were also other younger artists who stuck with the keyblock, notably Ada Collier, herself a student of Giles, Kenneth Broad and Phillip Needell. Anna Findlay made use of the keyblock for her colour woodcuts, then something happened. She took up linocut.


Making a linocut doesn't necessarily mean an artist can do away with outline. It only means they use line in a different way, as does Ronald Grierson in Farm machinery. What we get now are all those racy jagged outlines and heavily defined planes we have come to love so much. But compare Phillips Waterlilies on its side to the Grierson and the differences are not so great. By comparison, Phillip's work is flatter and less dynamic. But what a Grosvenor School linocut gains in a modern sense of structure, it loses in expression. For all Claude Flight's blather about the avoidance of Japanese methods, it  was artists like Rankin and Rigden Read who showed the way well before he did. How far they were both influenced by European woodcut example and even by colour linocut is very hard to say.


I'm not a huge fan of Read's The batik scarf  but it shows how accomplished he could be with limited means and just how much can be achieved with turquoise and grey. But then he was in his forties by the time he made this in 1924, with alot of experience behind him. As was Mabel Royds. She had experimented as early as Sunspots in 1912, and left out the keyblock altogether, and she certainly made less use of outline from the early thirties on.  But what we tend to miss is what we perhaps take for granted. The vitality and eloquence of Royd's cutting was noticed by her contemporaries. Another artist with an individual and expressive use of black outline was Elizabeth Christie Brown but Royds was the only artist at the time to have a keyblock (for Girl and goat) published as exemplary in a book. Here she is still hammering away at her craft in 1927, with that combination of vital cutting, colour and suggestion that makes Read look rather technical, as Giles himself might have said. Malcolm Salaman, who should have given a lecture at Manchester instead of Giles, said the Indian subjects had brought out the best in Royds. I wonder whether these were the kinds of workers Giles himself was thinking about.



  1. Charles,

    very interesting posting!

    Rigden Read's "Venetian Shawl" is nearly as effective as Klemm's "Reiher". It struck me that in their treatment of surface structure these two prints have a lot in common when you showed Read's print for the first time some weeks ago.

    I hope you don't mimnd my pointing out that by choosing these strange waterlilies you are not doing justice to the poetical genius of Walter J. Phillips.


  2. Believe it or not, Klaus, I decided to leave out any references to Klemm and Hans Frank. I would certainly think Read used Frank's 'Seagulls' as a starting-point for 'Stormy Seas' but I couldn't pin down a Klemm print. Your comparison with 'Reiher' shows yet again what an attentive eye you have. Read's re-use of the pose and the silhouette is remarkable. He was working on this idea of a vertical subject against a blank space as early as 1904 ie before Klemm.

    I thought you might be fascinated that I had a Christmas card from Phillips to Allen Seaby. I admit I was pushed for time and the choice of image, as you rightly say, was a poor one.

  3. I'm always interested in why an artist chooses to use, or not to use, a keyblock.
    Rankin didn't use a keyblock in her 'Striped Rocks', or in the others you featured in July, but she did stick with the dark border.
    Her prints have a wonderful sense of airiness and space - I can't help wondering what they'd have looked like without that outline...
    Another really absorbing read, thank you Charles!

  4. I wondered how printmakers themselves would react to this post, Gail. Now I know, so thank you for commenting.

    I always think artists continued to use a black border to cover messy edges but other artists working in the twenties like Paul Leschhorn and Carl Rotky used nothing. I also own Marions Gill's own exhibition copy of her 'Cape Sunset' where the mount more or less cover the outline. Many Grosvenor artists signed the image on the assumption that they would be mounted to the edge, I suppose. Claude Flight, as I said in his post, defined the edge with arrows or a ruled line.

    But I think this calls for another post!